Friday, April 21, 2017

Belgium 2017 - Antwerp: Momu, Kloosterstraat, De Wilde Zee

We had seven days of touring planned for Antwerp, covering most of the downtown area as well as a few off-the-beaten-path locations.  As it turned out, we only followed six days of our intended itinerary.  By the 7th day, we were tired, I was feeling run down and fighting a cold, and the weather was wet and chilly, so we decided to stay home and rest up before our planned road trip to Bruges and Ghent.  Since our home swap location was to the east of the Antwerp Zoo and most of the tourist sites that we wanted to visit were to the West, we soon realized that we would be traversing more or less the same path each day.  We had the option of heading north or south to get around the Zoo, but eventually we would always end up on the Meir shopping street or one of the streets parallel to it, before veering off in the direction of the day's agenda.

This was not such a big issue since the buildings on these streets were beautiful and passing by our favourite chocolate stores regularly was not such a hardship.  We did consider taking transit some days, but there was no good route that would eliminate enough of the walking distance for us.  We still would have to walk many blocks to get to a bus and after we got off the bus, let alone finding the bus stop and figuring out when the bus would come. Our home swap hosts kindly offered to let us use their bikes, but we did not feel confident enough to ride on the cobblestone streets and over the streetcar tracks without really knowing where we were going.  Therefore, we made the trek each day and walked so much that despite weeks of eating chocolate and waffles, we did not gain any weight by the time we returned home.

Walking through the shopping districts gave us an opportunity to pursue one of my favourite activities, which is window-shopping and looking for interesting or quirky items to take photos of.  We seriously considered bringing home a “pirate piggy bank” for our niece who loves anything pirate, but it was too big and fragile to fit into our carry-on luggage.  I was intrigued by the swanky men’s shoes with patterns including comic strip characters and Elvis Presley (with a matching belt!).  I also liked the deep red chair that reminded me of the lips from the Rolling Stones album.  From whichever direction that we were coming from, we would know that we were almost home once we reached familiar landmarks like the big “Hand sculpture” on Meir.

After our extremely long second day, on our third day in Antwerp we tried to take a slower pace and planned less to see.  We would tour the Mode Museum of Fashion, look for a few comics murals in the area, and then tour the funky shopping district of Kloosterstraat.  We picked Haute Frituur on Kloosterstraat for lunch since it was highly rated on TripAdvisor for its frites and sauce.   On the way back, we planned to look for some deli food take home to eat for dinner.  We actually found the perfect take-out meal, but unfortunately lost it shortly after – more on that later.

The Mode Museum of Fashion (nicknamed Momu) does not have a permanent collection but hosts temporary exhibitions instead.  Accordingly, the museum is only as interesting as its latest exhibition.  Unfortunately, we were not that keen on the one running when we visited.  It was the designs of Martin Margeila during his tenure as director of women's ready-to-wear line for Hermes from 1997-2003.  Margeila’s vision was to design for the “natural, mature woman” with goals of providing comfort, quality and timelessness in basic styles that could be mixed and matched, and fit all body shapes.  To achieve this objective, Margelia’s fashions during this period were all in muted or monochrome colours including white, black, beige and tan.  His resulting clothing line epitomized the opposite of the saying “all flash-no function”.  In this case, I thought the clothes on display were “all function-no flash”.  This did not make it a very exciting exhibit to walk through.  It did not help that I was already grumpy since the museum did not allow photos, and required even small purses to be stored in lockers.  I don’t understand the “no photos” policy in this age of social media, where posted photos actually act as free advertisement for the venue or show, and photos are readily available on the internet already.  I found it interesting that in his quest for bland, monochrome shades, Margeila even took all the colours and patterns out of the iconic Hermes silk scarf, known for its bright bold designs.

Margeila had some creations that walked a fine line between being creative and just plain weird.  He used a pair of nylons as a belt for an oversized trench coat.  Another mannequin was dressed in both an oversized turtleneck and a pair of men’s jeans so large that a giant safety pin was used to clinch together the waistline.  There was also a jacket made out of a duvet blanket, a top made out of black leather gloves and the sweater made of military socks sewn together.  I didn’t really understand the desired look of the model pictured wearing a beige body suit, white shirt with rolled up sleeves draped over her shoulders and long wavy hair combed over her face.  Was she trying to appear as if she was walking backwards?  It made me realize that we have previously seen an equally strange “hair dress” designed by Margeila at a Fashion Museum in Paris.

It was not until I got home and had time to read through the brochure of the exhibit, that I began to appreciate some of the innovative concepts in tailoring, technique and material that Margeila invented.  His “Vareuse” featured a deep V-neck on a shirt, sweater or jacket that allowed the wearer to remove the top by sliding it off the shoulders and stepping out of it, or tie the sleeves around her waist.  He designed clothing with removable components such as collars and sleeves, and “mix-and-match-able” items that can be layered or un-layered.  He also made transformable items such as a coat that could turn into a cape, and a jacket that could be folded up into a bag for easy transportation.  I would have still preferred an exhibit that featured more colour and pizazz, but I came to understand why Margeila was important to the fashion world.

There was one extra small exhibit at the Momu, featuring the knitted and crocheted works of Antwerp fashion designer Ann Salens, whose designs were worn by musical duo Nicole & Hugo, the Belgian version of Sonny and Cher.  Salens created frilly silk dresses for Nicole in a gradient of colours that are stunning to behold.  She also designed several matching crocheted trouser suits for Hugo.  As part of the exhibit, a video was shown of Nicole and Hugo discussing their former performance outfits, but unfortunately, it was in Dutch so we couldn’t understand what they were saying.

Kloosterstraat turned out to be every bit the fun, quirky street that it is reputed to be, full of antique and bric-a-brac shops, art galleries and shops that sell cool and unusual items.  We came across the interesting design store at Kloosterstraat 46 that had plastic busts of buff nude males in various colours and hairstyles sitting on the road in front of its door.  Then when you look up at the rest of the building, you see more mannequins sitting on each of the windowsills.  In a furniture store, there were leather “cow-patterned” chairs that my cow-obsessed friend Murray would have loved.  From far away, I spotted some “purses”, each with a big hole in the middle, which turned out to be designer garden hoses.  We passed by the Baan Phetara Thai Massage clinic, whose mannequin of a monk in the window seemed so realistic that I got the creeps looking at it.  You could see every pore and whisker on his (its?) face.

It was such a joy for us to walk up and down Kloosterstraat, looking at the windows or walking into the shops to get a closer look at interesting items. In a novelty shop, we found piggy banks shaped like Chairman Mao, Einstein and Karl Marx, a toilet paper roll shaped like a camera, and the “Pyro-Pet” candle which exposes the skeleton of an animal once you burn away the wax of a candle.  A hat shop featured an interesting headpiece that consisted of a series of purple fans stuck to a velour hat.  I was particularly stuck by the almost profane treatment of traditional religious icons in some of the art pieces.  There was the set of plates that when put together, form the image of Jesus crucified on the cross.  Then in the art gallery Pjez Unik, the artist named “DA AD” creates religious statues dressed up like super heroes, including Saint Batman, and a “Madonna cradling Jesus” trope re-imagined as Captain America cradling Superman.

We chose the restaurant Haute Frituur since it was known for its Belgian fries with choice of dipping sauces.  The fries were crispy but still too thick for my taste.  We were able to try “samurai” sauce (mayonnaise with herbs and hot peppers), another Belgian staple.  But it was the special croquette that we ate here that was the most memorable and possibly our favourite dining experience in Antwerp.  We had tasted the traditional cheese and shrimp Belgian croquettes already, but because it was asparagus season, Haute Frituur was offering a special asparagus croquette.  This was so delicious that we kept hoping to have it again at another restaurant, but to no avail.  To go with our fries, Rich ordered a bacon and cheese burger while I requested a breaded fish burger with tartar sauce.  I liked the little buns that the burgers came on and the side vegetable salad.  Rich ordered the Belgian Kamil beer, a specialty beer with “high fermentation”, which apparently produces beer with a high alcohol content and a more complex aroma.

We found three more comics murals on this day’s walk.  On Korte Riddersstraat, Willy Vandersteen recreates a scene from the cover of his Suske & Wiske (Spike & Suzy) comic book “The Amoras Island”.  On Oever, Bretch Evens “Colourful Parade” depicts an amalgamation of animated characters including a babushka doll, the Chinese cat and many others that I didn’t recognize.  On Kloosterstraat, right across from Haute Frituur, Marc Sleen’s mural depicts his character Nero sailing a tugboat on his way to the North Pole.  We thought it would be fun to use the “cartoon mode” on our camera to photograph me in front of the murals, effectively turning me into a comic strip character as well.
On our way home, we found another shopping area called "De Wilde Zee" (the Wild Sea) which is notable for its restaurants and food shops.  The area is bound by five main shopping streets: Schoenmarkt, Huidevettersstraat, Everdijstraat, Lombardenstraat and Geefsstraat.  Within this area, some of our favourite shops were found on the cross streets of Wiegstraat and Schrijnwerkersstraat.  The little squares formed between the shopping streets are lined with trees and public art, including a large religious shrine, and the whimsical bronze sculpture by Luc Verlee (1976) called “The Rascal” that depicts a little boy pulling down his pants to cheekily expose his bum (pun intended).  Buskers and musicians perform in the squares and we had a pleasant time sitting on a bench listening to a duo playing jazz classics on their keyboard and cello.

We were tempted by the street food vendor selling battered calamari, shrimp or mussels that he could fry up on the spot and serve to us with lemon and a choice of tartar sauce, aioli or mayonnaise.  We bought some calamari and shrimp as a pre-dinner snack and ate it at a standing table in the square.  This area was where we first discovered the chocolatier chain Neuhaus and experienced what turned out to be our favourite chocolates that we would continue to devour for the rest of our trip.  These chocolates even had an interesting history.  Neuhaus wanted to come up with a special confectionary treat for the 1958 World’s Fair held in Brussels.  They developed the Caprice and the Tentation, which are triangular-shaped chocolates that start with a part crunchy/part chewy nougatine biscuit, filled with vanilla cream and coffee ganache respectively, then coated with dark and milk chocolate respectively.  The resulting sweets provide such a variety of tastes and textures.  Later on, they added three more flavours.  The Plasir is a milk chocolate covered nougatine filled with ganache made from roasted hazelnuts, with hazelnut sprinklings on top.  The Désir is a dark chocolate made from 64% cocoa, covering nougatine filled with dark intense chocolate ganache from Peru with chocolate sprinklings on top.  And my favourite, the Séduction, is a dark chocolate covered nougatine filled with raspberry fresh cream and raspberry sprinklings on top that merges the slightly tart taste of raspberry with the sweetness of the chocolate.  Together, this set of chocolates are aptly named “The Incredibles”.

We found the Witzwart Deli at Lombardenvest 40, which had delectable offerings of take-out food that we could bring home and reheat for our dinner.  There were meats, vegetables, pasta and rice dishes, stews and casseroles for us to choose from.  We selected a Thai red curry chicken with zucchini and some rice pilaf with peas, and looked forward to a nice relaxing meal back at our home swap.

Since there were so many good-looking food shops in the vicinity and since De Wilde Zee would be on our path home the next day as well, we decided to scout out more take-out dining options.   We liked the choices at the seafood deli Van Bladel, which included smoked fish, breaded croquettes, seafood paella, scampi and oyster dishes, lobster and clam chowder soups and more.  We also liked the freshly made pastas and sauces at the Italian deli Il Pastaiolo.  In particular, I had my eye on a mushroom ravioli with cream sauce.

With our dinner in hand, we were ready to make the 30 minute walk back to our home when we just happened to pass by Désiré de Lille, known for its wide selection of Belgian waffles.  After thinking about it for a few seconds, we decided that it was serendipity that we found this eatery that had been on our list of places to try, and that one more quick snack before dinner would not hurt.  We surveyed the massive menu of waffle choices and selected one to share that quickly became our go-to waffle combination.  It was the cooked cherries with whipping cream which we had this time on a regular Belgian waffle.  We would be trying this combination again on a Liege waffle later on in the vacation.  Now sated with our snacks, we trekked home, ready to enjoy our dinner.  But once we got there, we realized that we had left the take-out food at Désiré de Lille!  We quickly considered going back to get it, but it was a 30 minute walk each way, which was just not viable after we had been walking all day.   Instead, we decided to eat a few slices of cold cuts and cheese that we had purchased from the grocery store on our first day and call it a night.  It was very disappointing to have lost our nice hot meal that we so carefully picked out, especially since we could see in our photos when Rich was still carrying the bag.  But given that we had been snacking all day, we probably didn’t really need the food anyways.

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